Rush, Quotas, and the Discriminatory Double Standard
You undoubtedly have heard of Rush Limbaugh’s recent statement on ESPN that NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is not talented, but is only considered so because he is black. The statement he made was not just racist, but represents a set of beliefs commonly held by staunch conservatives considering the innate abilities of blacks, and the effects of what they refer to as “affirmative action,” but more accurately should be named as “quotas.” In short, that belief says that any black person’s achievement must be questioned and their esteem diminished if there is even an outside chance that some sort of quota or special consideration may have been given them due to their race. It is this, and not Limbaugh’s own racism, his resignation from ESPN, nor the fact that he has been accused of drug abuse, that I would like to discuss here.
First off, it is necessary to define and explain two concepts which have been massively abused and mangled: “Affirmative Action” and “Quotas.” It is a standard tactic for conservatives to smear a popular, respectable idea or organization by finding something else even distantly related but much more easily attacked, re-defining that secondary item as being representative of the whole issue, and then smearing the hell out of it. That’s what happened with the ERA, when feminism was re-defined in the public eye, somewhat successfully, as being the domain of unattractive, arrogant lesbians seeking to overpower men; it is what is happening now with reproductive rights, with pro-lifers assiduously trying to frame the entire issue as a matter of the rare but far uglier late-term abortions. And that is what has happened with Affirmative Action, being framed as an issue of quotas. Thus the waters have been successfully muddied to the point that even proponents of Affirmative Action have come to use the terms interchangeably.
Affirmative Action is a set of guidelines for employers to follow in order to “overcome the discriminating effect of past or present practices, policies, or other barriers to equal employment opportunity,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For example, let’s say that you are hiring a hundred new workers for your company. Your business is within commuting distance of many towns, each with a different ethnic and socioeconomic makeup. Affirmative Action guidelines will tell you that you should advertise the position to all of these communities, rather than focusing on just one. In many cases, advertising for positions are concentrated in one area by making inquiries at one employment office rather than another, or by placing notices in ethnic- or class-specific journals or venues; this limits the opportunity for fair consideration for those who are not targeted. Affirmative Action explains issues such as this one and recommends how to avoid discriminatory actions–how to choose whom to hire based solely on ability, and thereafter administer that job in a fair and equal manner.
The quota, often identified as “Affirmative Action,” is, in fact, a completely different animal. Mandated either by courts or by executive order, quotas are a remedial resolution to repair proven or prevalent instances of discrimination. Executive orders by Kennedy and Johnson, for example, sought to correct blatantly obvious imbalances in hiring and contracting within the federal government. When a court orders a quota applied to an organization, it is in response to a specific and clearly demonstrable case of discrimination.
There are many misconceptions about quotas. These misconceptions, most often intentionally placed by opponents of quotas and Affirmative Action, are often the cause of the anecdotal evidence used to attack the quota system. For example, the idea that quotas are required where they are not. Many employers, fearing being sued for discrimination, use self-imposed quotas that are, in fact, completely unnecessary. They hear conservatives tell horror stories of businesses punished and forced to accept unreasonable quotas, and believe in them. This leads to the infamous “we’ve got to hire a black woman no matter what” mindset; and that, in turn, serves as anecdotal evidence for conservatives claiming that quotas require businesses to hire unqualified workers–a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle that has nothing to do with actual quotas.
The truth is, a company, as a statistical anomaly, could have a predominantly white, male workforce and yet still be clean; it is not the ethnic makeup of the company workforce that matters, but rather whether or not the hiring practices are fair. A company could employ white males almost exclusively and still be kosher, so long as it can demonstrate that its hiring practices were non-discriminatory. Ethnic composition only matters after racial discrimination has been proven and a quota mandated.
Another misconception is that quotas require an organization to hire people who are under-qualified. This is also patently untrue. Even under the strictest of quotas, if an organization can demonstrate that no qualified minority candidates were found despite a fair and determined recruitment campaign, they are off the hook. No one is forced to hire unqualified workers, though some people may unreasonably feel compelled to do so–again, most often because they hear the far-right rhetoric and believe in it as fact.
One more common misunderstanding is that quotas force employers to hire a similar percentage of minorities as is represented in the local population. This is untrue. Quotas mandate their percentages based upon the population of qualified minorities in the local workforce, “local” defined as living within a certain radius of the organization in question.
In fact, statistically speaking, a quota should never have any impact on hiring at all. If a hiring process is above-board and non-discriminatory, then the racial makeup of those hired will naturally follow the local makeup of the qualified workforce. The fact that a quota should force a hiring one way or another is in itself evidence that the hiring process may not be not functioning properly.
This ties in to yet another misconception, that discrimination is always conscious and intentional; it is not. We make final decisions to hire from a group of qualified applicants often based upon personal considerations (will this person get along with others in the workplace? How comfortable do I feel with this person?) that can easily be swayed by unconscious biases. It is my speculation that a majority of those who discriminate are unaware they are doing so, and most would be shocked and dismayed to know the truth. Instead, confronted with a quota, they resent the judgment because they see it as an accusation of a conscious act of racism, and having no such conscious intent, are insulted and respond with anger and denial.
The final misconception I would like to address is that of “preferential treatment.” A charge also leveled at women and gays, it is the idea that somehow minorities enjoy more advantages than whites and are unfairly benefited by things such as quotas. This misconception is rather easily dismissed by a quick glance at employment figures, which clearly show that white males are still largely over-represented in all areas relative to their numbers in the workforce, especially in higher-paying, higher-ranking positions. Far from demonstrating that quotas give minorities an advantage, it shows that there is a greater and more powerful force tilting the scales in favor of whites: racial discrimination. That is, after all, what Affirmative Action and quotas were intended to offset, and they have not been able to make more than a reasonable dent in that particular societal establishment. If some white males feel they have lost opportunities due to quotas, they probably have never even considered that they have in the past likely benefited from discrimination far more than they have been hit by its remedy. When we gain something, we tend to believe it is earned, not stolen; when we lose something, we do feel that a deserved reward has been taken from us. Similarly, white men are used to a superior position, and believe it is their due; when the scales are made more balanced, it feels to them as if something they have earned is being unfairly stolen and given to someone who does not deserve it.
This brings me to the point about the attitude held by Mr. Limbaugh and other conservatives concerning “preferential treatment.” It is the contention that minorities should resent quotas, and, by association, Affirmative Action, because it puts into question any achievement made by any minority member. In the case of Mr. McNabb, Limbaugh was asserting that he was under-qualified, and only achieved respect and recognition due to a social quota that gave him preferential status. Unfortunately, many minorities buy into this sham, believing that quotas are unfair and that all they have achieved is thereby tainted.
This is patently false, and can be checked by a quick look at how white males assess their own achievements. Racial discrimination clearly gives white males a far greater unfair advantage than even the most stringent of quotas gives to minorities–and yet I have yet to hear any white male seriously question the deservedness of his position or the merit of his achievements because of the likelihood that his path was smoothed by racial discrimination.
It is hypocrisy of the highest order for white men to question or denigrate the standing of minorities because of any possible benefits of Affirmative Action or quotas while not questioning their own standing in light of the far more powerful and widespread influence of racial discrimination.